America’s New Gunfight: Inside the Campaign to Avert Mass Shootings

Will a new campaign for gun laws quell the mass shootings that are routine in America?

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Correction Appended Jan. 19, 2013

The next great American gun fight began this month with handshakes and smiles in a reunion of old foes at the Vice President’s ceremonial office. Joe Biden knew the drill. Two decades ago, he led the last major gun-control effort in the Senate, enacting a 10-year ban on sales of certain semiautomatics and imposing background checks for gun purchasers using licensed dealers. It was a defining experience. “Guns! Guns! Guns!” he called out from the Senate floor in August 1994. “The single most contentious issue in the 22 years I have been here that relates to the criminal-justice system.”

Now it was starting again, in another gilded room and with many of the same players still sitting on opposite sides of the table, including James Jay Baker, a top advocate for the National Rifle Association. The Vice President’s views on guns hadn’t changed much over the years: “The NRA gained power, and he gained disdain for them,” explains one former aide. But Biden arrived, as always, looking to win the room.

(MORE: Your Brain in Shootout: Guns, Fear, and Flawed Instincts)

So he began with charm, praising Baker for his fairness regarding some issue they both worked on in Delaware. He made a crack to the other gun-owner advocates—“gunners,” he used to call them—about the difficulty of getting Hollywood and the video-game industry to talk about their addiction to violence. Then he laid out the contours of the fight to come, deflecting the harshest policy disagreements to his boss’s judgment. “I am the Vice President, not the President,” he said.

Vice President Joe Biden

Nigel Parry / CPi for TIME

‘I have no illusions about what we’re up against … but i also have never seen the nation’s conscience so shaken.’ —Joe Biden

Biden wanted to send a message, one he had been honing since December in meetings with cops, gun-control groups, clergy, mayors, educators and medical professionals. Ever since President Obama decided to pursue new gun controls after the massacre of 20 first-graders and six staff members at Sandy Hook Elementary, Biden and his staff knew they faced an uphill battle in Congress. Democrats from rural districts remain wary of gun restrictions, and the Republican House is so dysfunctional that it can’t even pass its own bills, let alone one written by the White House. Even Obama treated guns as swing-state kryptonite during his re-election campaign, hardly mentioning the issue on the trail.

So the public fact-finding mission that Biden undertook in late December was given a second, more vital purpose: to lay the groundwork for a new grassroots movement, a lasting national campaign that would bring together various interest groups to win new limits on firearms—new penalties for gun trafficking, new prosecutions of gun crimes, limits on the types of guns available for sale, requirements for background checks for private and gun-show purchases, regulations for ammunition and limits on the size of gun magazines.

Biden and Obama laid their proposal before the public Jan. 16, with more than a hint of other battles to come. The President immediately signed 23 Executive Orders to prevent future gun violence and proposed new legislation that would, if enacted, amount to the biggest change in gun laws since 1968. “This is our first task as a society—keeping our children safe,” Obama said. “This is how we will be judged.”

The White House does not expect to win many judgments soon. Instead it wants to change the entire conversation about gun politics in America. Republicans in both chambers, resistant to betraying a key constituency, will have to feel the sting of sustained public outrage for the effort to succeed. And Democrats will have to risk short-term ballot-box backlash and take votes they too have resisted for at least 20 years. No one expects either campaign to be easy. “It falls into the larger context of the Republicans’ fighting rearguard battles on immigration and the role of government and on this,” said one Administration official about the coming gun fight. “That’s going to be hard to sustain over time.”

(MORE: Cover Story: The Gunfighters)

But even some Republicans admit that the Newtown, Conn., massacre may have changed the fundamental chemistry of gun politics in the U.S. Before the end of the year, polls were shifting slightly, showing majorities in the country in favor of new regulations on assault weapons, high-capacity magazines and universal background checks. A Time/CNN poll found in mid-January that 55% of the country supported stricter gun control, while 44% opposed it. As Biden put it before his meeting with the gun-owner groups, “There is nothing that has gone to the heart of the matter more than the visual image people have of little 6-year-old kids riddled—not shot by a stray bullet but riddled, riddled—with bullet holes in their classroom.” In his meetings with the gun lobbyists, Biden asked his guests to consider the shifting terrain after Sandy Hook. Even evangelical leaders, he said, traditionally a source of Republican influence, were expressing concern about guns. “It’s going the other way,” he told the men across the table. It was a warning and, in its way, a threat.

Kiss My Constitution

For Baker and the rest of the NRA brass, the Biden effort had the feel of a dark prophecy finally fulfilled. For a year, NRA executive vice president Wayne LaPierre had been warning Americans of “a massive Obama conspiracy to deceive voters and hide his true intentions to destroy the Second Amendment.” He said gun owners needed to ready themselves for an assault on their rights if Obama was re-elected. And the uptick in gun and ammunition purchases across the country after the election suggested that many gun owners agreed. At rallies LaPierre would warn that Americans had been lulled to sleep in the first term. “That lying, conniving Obama crowd can kiss our Constitution!” he would call out to applause. Now it was happening.

“They see this as their best shot, and it is a shot that they are taking, and they are coming right at us,” David Keene, the NRA’s president, said a few days later in an interview with Time. The group, which says it has more than 4 million members and spent about $20 million in the 2012 election cycle, was getting ready—reviewing the polls, keeping in touch with its members and calibrating message strategy. “We’re doing all the things you would do if you were expecting a really serious battle,” he said.

(FROM THE ARCHIVES: TIME’s Gun Covers, 1968-2013)

Keene welcomed some of the ideas Biden was preparing, like increased federal funding for school security and more aggressive prosecution for felons who illegally attempt to buy weapons. Keene was even willing to entertain an expansion of the background-check system for gun shows, where roughly 40% of gun sales take place. “I’m interested to see how such a proposal would be workable,” he said. But he expressed concern about the entire approach of the Administration and about anything that sought to limit the types of firearms and magazines available for law-abiding citizens. “We are saying the question that Americans are asking is ‘How do we protect our kids?’ The question is not ‘How do we ban guns we don’t like?’”

Most worrisome for the NRA was the clear sense that something else had changed since the 1990s, something Biden didn’t harp on in the meeting but was counting on nonetheless: leverage. “They, for the first time, have money and coordination that they did not have before,” Keene said. Millionaires and billionaires were stepping forward. Gun-victim groups were organizing. Social-networking campaigns were being prepared. Celebrities had been recruited to carry the message. This new fight over guns would be fought over old fault lines but on new terrain, with new tools, many of which were just proved very effective in the heat of a nationwide campaign. Biden, this time, had backup. “The public wants us to act,” he said.

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